Great Fire was a landmark event that's losing its impact

January 31, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

WHEN THE skies are iron gray and the wind abruptly changes direction on a blustery midwinter Sunday morning, I say to myself, this is genuine Baltimore Fire weather.

As the child of two grandmothers who lived not far from the Feb. 7, 1904, fire -- Lily Rose on Broadway and Mary Louise on Poultney Street -- I heard a fair amount about their climbing up on the roof to see the flames. I also spent Sundays at exhibits at the old Peale Museum, the Pratt Library and the Maryland Historical Society. I was much fascinated by the sepia pictures of pre-fire Baltimore, all the cast-iron building fronts and the warehouses on the wharves that extended into the harbor.

I was schooled in fire lore, that the first box struck was No. 414. I memorized the name of John E. Hurst Co., the Hopkins Place wholesaler where the fire began. Every Roman Catholic child was indoctrinated in the tale of Thomas O'Neill, the red-headed department store owner, and of his entreaties to spare his wares from the fire and how he later left his fortune to build a cathedral and hospital for Baltimore.

Perhaps the biggest impression was made by a mass of congealed marbles found in the ruins and later used as a paperweight by a friend of my mother's. To a 6-year-old, that glob (it resembled coal) was better than an afternoon at the Waverly movie house.

All this exposure taught me to respect the fire as a landmark of the city's history. I'm not so sure that the fire is such a big deal at its centenary. Fifty years ago, in 1954, there was much made of the anniversary. But then, there were many people around who, like my grandmothers, had seen the fire's ferocity from their rooftops. Nearly everyone seemed to have his or her own patented Baltimore Fire account; they were all worth listening to, at least once.

For the last few months I've been considering why we don't get terribly worked up over the fire story anymore. Maybe the fire legacy would have been more compelling had there been more deaths. What I never heard was a Baltimore Fire human hardship story. The thing swept through the commercial heart of the city and took warehouses, newspaper offices, hotels and banks. Very few homes were destroyed. City Hall, the post office, courthouse and most of the downtown churches and synagogues were spared, as were the principal theaters.

For decades, it was a cornerstone fact that no lives were lost in the actual fire. The old histories didn't tell us about the hapless National Guard members who froze to death guarding the ruins or the nameless laborers crushed to death taking down the fire-damaged walls. Later accounts have detailed their misery, but these losses are still not so well-known.

One of my own pet fire observations concerns the Baltimore that rose in what was once called the Burnt District. In 1904, 1905 and 1906, as the city rapidly rebuilt, marvelously designed replacement buildings went up, many made of limestone, granite and ornamental iron in a graceful Beaux Arts style.

Then along came the damnable urban renewal acts of the 1950s and '60s, which ripped the guts out of neighborhoods where these wonderful structures stood. Huge chunks of downtown Baltimore fell again, leaving us with windy plazas and very-hard-to-forgive architecture.

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